The Way Vivid, Way Underappreciated Short Stories of Mavis Gallant

Author Peter Orner pays tribute to of one of the past century's great character builders.

Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

In 1952, a Canadian woman faced starvation in Madrid. This was Mavis Gallant, then 29 years old, who had just sold her first stories to The New Yorker's legendary fiction editor, William Maxwell. But the check, the only income she could count on, never came. Over a long period of destitution, she sold personal possessions to survive—a skirt, a winter coat, her clock, her typewriter (she could write by hand), even a beloved heirloom: "Parted with Granny's ring," she wrote, "...and spent every pesata of it on food. Felt I had not eaten a good meal in days and days."

Journal entries from this period—excerpted recently in The New Yorker, part of a broader collection to published by Knopf in 2014—show the writer's fierce dedication to her work. She would rather go desperately hungry than sacrifice daily engagement with her characters—"I have arranged matters so that I would be free to write," she said, later in life. "It's what I like doing." Now 90, this determination has paid off:Gallant is one of the most prolific living writers of elite-level short stories.

Yet with champions like Jhumpa Lahiri, John Updike, and Michael Ondaatje, Gallant is still not a household name. Her form of narrative, Lahiri has written, "refuses to sit still": Readers must pay close attention to catch subtle shifts in inflection, point of view, and time. This can be a challenge, but for Peter Orner, author of novels Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, it's a favorite kind of reading. We talked about Gallant's enduring appeal for him—that she requires our best, but in the bargain she grants access to eerily lifelike characters.

Peter Orner's collection, Esther Stories, was published in a new edition this April with a foreward by Marilynne Robinson; it includes "The Raft," selected for Best American Short Stories 2001. August will bring us Orner's long-awaited second collection: In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown) "fires jewel-toned shards of fiction [that compose] a stunning whole." He is editor of two books for McSweeney's "Voice of Witness" series—Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives and Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, a collection of true stories about undocumented workers in America. He spoke to me by phone from California, where he teaches writing at San Francisco State University.

Peter Orner: I don't think I found Mavis Gallant through anybody—one day I just picked up My Heart Is Broken, somehow, on my own. It had a girl on the cover, that much I remember. The first story I read is called "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street." It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it changed my reading life forever. The story is about how the love of a couple changes over a long period—from early hope to beautiful, even comic, resignation. No, all their dreams didn't pan out, but hell, we've got our stories and they're good stories, and nobody can take those away from us. Rather than belittle her characters' failures, Gallant celebrates them. It's the sort of story that makes you pause, breathe, and take in all that you have as opposed to worrying over what's missing.

Gallant's work reminds you to think more deeply about the people you deal with—as a writer, with your characters, and in your life. She reminds us of how fathomless we are, how there is always more to know.

So it's character that moves me about Gallant's work. It isn't her plots—which are wonderful—but her obsession with the infinitely strange ways we people behave. Gallant's characters are complex and inconsistent: Their most deeply held beliefs easily dissolve in the face of what it takes to simply get through the day. And lets be honest, don't they? In the morning, yes, we'll wake up and do our best to believe again...And Gallant has faith in that too, in our ability to pick ourselves back up. But she's peerless at showing all the ways we fall apart.

"In Plain Sight," is, to my mind (forgive more hyperbole here, when I love I writer, I go whole embarrassing hog) one of the great stories ever written about a writer. I think the reason it is so good is that Henri Grippes is a human being, an extremely flawed human being, who happens to have once been a pretty good French novelist. One of the recurring jokes in the story is that a lot of people think his best work is behind him. "No one dies in Grippes novels; not anymore."

The story opens with Grippes in his Paris apartment as the weekly air raid siren goes off. The siren makes him remember the not-so-distant war years. It also makes him remember his relationship with his neighbor (Mme. Parfaire) who once, six years prior, offered herself to him as a roommate, as a friend, as a lover. He turned her down in the cruelest way imaginable while standing in the hallway outside his apartment door. The writer in me, reading Gallant's description of Grippes rambling speech to Mme Parfaire, only wanted to stop and take notes. Ah, so this is how you pivot a story, you unhinge someone and then just stand back and watch and listen. As a person, it made me cringe. Henri, how could you be such an indifferent prick? The woman is offering you the rest of her life...

I've always been especially fond of stories about people remembering. I like to think our memories define us more than just about anything else. Henri Grippes can't help himself. The affair with Mme Parfiare was years ago, and yet here she is, now, invading his thoughts. Through his memories, we come to understand the regrets he lugs around, the regrets he continually grapples with, in his mind, as the air raid siren shrills.

And yet ultimately, as keenly as we see him, Grippes remains mysterious to himself. You'd think he'd make some sense of his life in old age, but it only feels more confusing. The fact that he's a writer, someone who's supposed to be articulate and self-reflective, makes it all the more hilarious, and endearing. Gallant's characters often fly in the face of that question often heard in creative writing workshops—"what does this character want?"—because she's honest about the plain fact that so many people don't have any clue what drives them.

Which brings me to the line I like so much. Grippes votes for the French Socialist party in the election of 1981, but when the result is announced he is dismayed:

"...A computerized portrait of Francois Mitterrand, first Socialist president of the 5th Republic, had unrolled on the television screen in the manner of a window blind. Grippes had felt stunned and deceived. Only a few hours before he had cast his vote for precisely such an outcome...[But] He had voted for a short list of principles, not their incarnation."

Grippes who supports the Socialist agenda is irritated and confused by their actual victory. The story captures the odd and often discomforting feeling of getting what you want. Because the fact is, again, who the hell knows what they want? Even the novelist Henri Grippes has no idea. Watching leftist revelers in the square, he can only marvel at the bitter aftertaste of what he thought he wanted:

"He had helped create the intemperate joy at the Place de Bastille, but why? Out of a melancholy habit of political failure, he supposed."

The melancholy habit of political failure! What Democrat remembering the 1980s—Mondale, Dukakis—can't relate to this? Because when you're not in power, you can blame other people for the government. And now more than ever, I empathize with Grippes. I can't say Obama's drones aren't my drones.

For me, these sorts of internal revelations can be exciting as any fast-paced plot. By focusing so intently on her characters, Gallant traps reality—how weird and slippery day-to-day life is—though art. "Realism" is not flat-footed and photographically perfect: Her stories are strange because our brains are strange, and the moments we choose to remember are strange. A story that seeks to capture this quality risks seeming unfocused. But this is what it's like to be us—and Gallant, as few others, nails the meandering, free associative quality of consciousness on the page.

I've heard people ask, why isn't Gallant better known? I wonder if it isn't because so many readers aren't looking for character. Plot reigns supreme. Take a look at the majority of books on any bestseller list. And something more—I wonder if Gallant's work doesn't also make some readers uncomfortable. In her stories, you become so immersed so quickly that before you know it you are mucking around deeply in someone else's screwed up life. That can be disturbing, unsettling, especially if one's life is also screwed up. (Whose isn't?) It can also be riveting too. And funny. As well as offer a kind of comradeship in screwed up-ness. But Gallant's not a writer for the faint hearted. Getting to know people so well on the page—as it is in life—is a commitment.

That's why "In Plain Sight" is not an easy story. It's wildly enjoyable to me, but to get to know another person, to really know them, you've got to be patient. That's why I pick up a book, after all. Fiction is one of the few ways I get that slowed-down feeling. Everything else in my life is moving so fast. But when I read, especially when I read Gallant, I pause. What I want to do is immerse myself in someone else for a while.

Gallant says stories are for shutting out the world, this way, for just a moment. "Stories are not chapters of novels," she says. "They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

You close the book, and you read another one another time. Because there's so much life in them. Your brain will get too crowded out. For a writer to admit that, is pretty bold. But it's true. To read two Mavis Gallant stories back-to-back is like living two lives. Each one deserves its own period of reflection, contemplation—and laughter.